Friday, April 14, 2017

Incorporated: Or How I Lost My Soul to Climate Change

Incorporated is a science fiction thriller that offers a chilling glimpse of a post-climate change dystopia. Created by David and Alex Pastor and produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Ted Humphrey and Jennifer Todd, the show (filmed in Toronto, Canada) opens in 82 °F Milwaukee in November 2074 after environmental degradation, widespread famine and mismanagement have bankrupted governments. We learn later that Milwaukee Airport served as a FEMA climate relocation centre that resembles an impoverished shantytown. In the wake of the governments demise, a tide of multinational corporations has swept in to control 90% of the globe and ratified the 29th amendment, granting them total sovereignty.

Corporations fight a brutal covert war for market share and dwindling natural resources. Like turkey vultures circling overhead, they position themselves for what’s left after short-sighted government regulations, lack of corporate check and FEMA mismanagement have 'had their way' with the planet. The world is now a very different place. There is no Spain or France. Everything south of the Loire is toxic desert; New York City reduced to a punch line in a joke.Reykjavik and Anchorage are sandy beach destinations and Norway is the new France—at least where champagne vineyards are concerned. Asia and Canada are coveted for their less harsh climates.

Those who work for the corporations live in privilege behind the sentried walls of the Green Zones. The rest fend for themselves with scarcity in the contaminated slums of the Red Zones. The numbers aren’t provided in the show’s intro but we can guess that they are similar to Pedro Aguilera’s TV thriller 3% and Blomkamp’s motion picture Elysium—both about living with scarcity, where the few elite enjoy the many privileges—so long as they follow the elite rules.

“Kleptocracy reigns, paranoia rules, and the marketplace determines human worth,” writes Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly about Incorporated. “Only the most obedient, cunning, and technologically adept can flourish. Question authority? You’re fired! And maybe worse.”

The ‘Elysium’ of Incorporated is an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mixture of realizable technological advances, gadgetry and thrilling--if not chilling--consequence: like self-driving cars, intelligent wristbands, surrogate pregnancies and remote deliveries, genetic testing of ‘inferiors’, DNA theft and malware sabotage.

The first episode (Vertical Mobility) opens to a corporate ‘traitor’ being dragged into “the quiet room”, rumoured to be a torture chamber run by taciturn head of security Julian Morse (Dennis Haysbert). The scene shifts to the Green zone suburban house of corporate climber Ben Larson (Sean Teale). As he prepares to go to work, the news streams of hurricanes breaching levies; Canada building a wall to stem the tide of illegal American climate refugees--12 million already there; offshore oil rigs in the waters of the former Arctic ice cap; and finally to the “terrorist” bombing of the R&D lab of biochemical giant Spiga, where Ben works. Spiga, we later learn, plays the same games as Monsanto and Nestle to ensure profits at the expense of well-being.

“Over the past forty years,” says a giant image of CEO Elizabeth Krauss (Julia Ormond) to the suits passing security in the giant corporate lobby below, “Spiga Biotech has been at the forefront of the genetic engineering revolution. We design seeds capable of thriving in the increasing harsh environments of our planet. Our pest and drought resistant crops are now sold in over a hundred countries. And our advancements in in-vitro testing have transformed the synth food industry.” She ends with the mantra, “Spiga: committed to feeding our ever-growing world.”

Ben is, of course, not what he pretends he is. The upwardly mobile executive has wed Laura Larson (Allison Miller), a doctor with a courageous heart who also happens to be the daughter of the unscrupulous Kraus. Ben is really Aaron, a former Red Zone techno-hustler who covertly searches for his Red Zone sweetheart, now a sex slave to corporate executives at Arcadia, the ‘men’s club’ of Spiga. If he’s going to spring her, Ben will have to get promoted to the 40th floor.

“If our [current] political climate has you feeling apocalyptic, Incorporated may or may not be the show for you,” writes Jensen. “It’s a triggering dystopian thriller and wannabe allegory-for-now about… well, apocalyptic climate change.” This show, perhaps more than any other, stirs disquieting thoughts of now—and with it, guilt about what we’re doing or not doing. At the heart of Incorporated is climate change, which is also its main character.

“The most impressive performance and character in Incorporated is its deeply imagined world,” writes Jensen. “Throwaway ideas, like a grieving widow who hires Laura to remake a poor immigrant in the image of her dead husband, could seed whole episodes of Black Mirror. James Bond would kill for the arsenal of gadgets Aaron deploys in his soul-staining subversions.” Nuanced minutiae and brilliant minor characters weave a mad tapestry that enrich and intrigue. And like a Seurat painting, their subtle details change with perspective and build into a subliminal realism you can’t shake: from the food porn in the opening scene to eating rats in climate relocation camps or drinking dirty Red Zone water that costs $5. In Cost Containment we learn that Spiga competitor Izanagi is developing salt-tolerant crops that, like the mangroves, will thrive on irrigated seawater in the deserts left by an exploitive short-sighted America: Iowa, Missouri, Kansas—all the dust storm states. In a later episode, a murdered corporate executive is found by two dowsers on the dried lakebed of Missouri's Lake Lotawana. We hear about the “oil wars” in Capetown.

“This "makes it hard to not think of the current political and cultural state of things across the globe,” writes Aaron Pruner of Screener TV. The fourth episode (Cost Containment) “opened with a familiar feeling infomercial. Yet, instead of Sally Struthers pleading with the common American to donate money to help feed a starving child in a third-world country, [a Chinese narrator presented] the United States as that third world.” Liz Shannon Miller of IndieWire writes: “Watching that cold open at this exact moment in our history is science fiction that might be a little too real. You can forget about The Walking Dead or The Exorcist: Incorporated may be the scariest show on television.” Says Pruner, “The thing that brought us here? Climate change.”

"It’s what gives us ... the refugee camps and ration hacking, the high-class cut-throat world of corporations and the privileged, yet dangerous, culture that comes with it," adds Pruner. The corporation's tyrannical demand for allegiance through rumours of loss of privileges, “contract termination”—or worse—resonates through the ranks in what the hacker in the Red Zone (Human Resources) calls cattle prod.

“You poor suits, always trying to catch up,” says the hacker to Roger Caplan (Douglas Nyback), ambitious executive looking to steal his way to the top. “A climber like you gets caught with something like this [a ‘keyhole’, which “allows you to snoop in any system without leaving any footprints”] he’s gonna get spanked. Or worse.”  Word is out that Spiga security can be very inventive with cattle prod.

Spiga's main competitor Izanagi (also the name of the male Japanese Shinto god responsible for creation) starts its propaganda machine on the very young to keep its corporate family in line. The third episode (Human Resources) opens with an Izanagi propaganda video for children. TV Fanatic calls it “both cute and chilling. Teaching your children to rat out Mom and Dad is pretty cold, but hey, this is the future, right?” But is it just the future? I'm confident that TV Fanatic wasn’t born yet when the Nazis formed the Hitlerjugend. But I would suggest they look up what Santayana said about history…

In one of the best played and most gratifying narrative threads of the show so far, a Red Zone techno-hacker (played by Canadian actress Sara Botsford)  provides some twisted humour as she easefully negotiates the Spiga machine to put corporate brat Roger Caplan in his place, enlighten us on some history and entertain us all at the same time. After Caplan disdainfully throws money at her to create a skeleton key to bypass the self-destruct protocol of his stolen keyhole, the hacker ops for entertainment instead as payment: she takes him outside her secured warehouse enclave and points to a small rat feeding on the debris in the adjoining alley.

“You see her?” To Caplan’s quizzing look, she points. “Beady eyes, pair of whiskers, long tail…” He finally gets it; the rat. “I want you to catch it,” the hacker bates him. “All ya gotta do is catch a little animal with the brains the size of a peanut. How hard can that be?”

After Caplan’s first attempt, in which he cuts his head, she croons, “Now that’s entertainment!” And chortles like a witch; but we find ourselves cackling with her. After successfully humiliating Caplan, the hacker forces him to do more. She starts with her own history: “I got here with the first wave of climate refugees, chased up north by the sandstorms. Government rations were never enough. You were probably sucking on your gestator’s tit,” she scoffs at Caplan, “while my brother and I had to scramble for enough protein. Sometimes there was only one source of it. Although it was everywhere, really…” Her gaze drifts down to the dead rat on the floor that Caplan had brought in at great expense to his clothes and pride. She adds, “I’d tell you it tastes like chicken but I don’t really remember what chicken tastes like. Why don’t you tell me whether it tastes like chicken…”

What follows is some deep gratification in witnessing Caplan—self-centered and greedy corporate archetype—getting schooled by a “lowly” but sly plebe. A “little old lady” no less! 

Pruner asks, “Could climate change push us into a collapsed society, informed consistently by the ongoing threat of class warfare? Will we eventually be separated by electric fences and really big walls? Are fear and greed going to be the currencies of our reality? These burning questions should sound far-fetched and silly, but as we watch Incorporated’s tale unfold, it’s hard not to wonder what our own future will bring.” Far-fetched and silly? Is it any more far-fetched and silly than voting in a president who claims that the Chinese invented climate change to make American manufacturing non-competitive?

The best entertainment doesn't put you to sleep; it wakes you up. The best entertainment doesn't just offer visceral escape; it engages you on many levels to connect, think and feel. And like all good things—friendship, love, family and home—its core value lies in its subtle yet deep truths. The best entertainment shows you a mirror of yourself. Incorporated is less thriller than satire. It is less science fiction than cautionary tale.

"You look to Incorporated for dystopian fiction that expresses our current anxieties," says Jensen. "What you get is fitful resonance that makes you realize it might be too soon for any show to meet that challenge.”

Or is it more that we may be too late…

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Monarch: Rallying Call of A Dying Butterfly

Several months ago, I reviewed Barbara Kingsolver’s New York Times Bestseller Flight Behavior. The story, whose premise is climate change and its affect on the monarch butterfly migration, is told through the eyes of Dellarobia Turnbow, a rural housewife in Tennessee, who yearns for meaning in her life. In the opening, Dellarobia stumbles upon a monarch massing in the forested hills above her farm. Although Dellarobia doesn’t realize it yet, that moment proves life-changing for her:  

“A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame…The mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave. Like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze…Trees turned to fire…The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in shows of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds….It was a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone. The impossible…She was on her own here, staring at glowing trees…Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, and ethereal wind. It had to mean something.”

Since that review, COSEWIC (the committee on the status of endangered wildlife in Canada) reported that the monarch is now officially “endangered”, victim to habitat loss of wintering grounds (through illegal logging) in Mexico, along with increasing destruction of milkweed caterpillar breeding habitat by drought and insecticide in Canada and the United States. While GMO corn, canola and soybeans have been engineered to be immune to the herbicide Round-Up (glyphosate), which is used liberally in large corporate farms, milkweed and other native “weeds” are destroyed.

The monarch butterfly migration is now recognized as a “threatened process” by the International
Union for Conservation of Nature. The monarch has precipitously declined—by 90% in the last two decades since Round-Up was aggressively introduced. Our role in Canada is paramount as part of the monarch’s cycle. Overwintering butterflies leave Mexico in early spring and migrate into the southern US, where they lay their eggs on milkweed plants before dying. Like in a relay race, the caterpillar offspring feed exclusively on milkweed, then as adults migrate further north into Canada to reproduce again and then return to Mexico to overwinter.

Future generations of monarchs, faced with changing climates, may have a hard time finding their way home, writes Nayantara Narayanan in a recent Scientific American article (2013). A monarch butterfly navigates using a sun compass in its mid-brain and circadian clocks in its antennae. But, until now, what makes a monarch reverse its direction has remained a mystery. New research shows that the chill at the start of spring triggers this switch. Monarch butterflies, having flown south in the fall, reorient themselves and start flying north after they've been exposed to lower temperatures, according to the study published … in Current Biology.” Researchers had to “go from signal to behavior” to figure it out. They determined that with temperature being a critical trigger for the monarch’s northward journey, climate change could be a “big spoilsport in its mass migration.” Unruly and unseasonal storms coupled with microclimate degradation (e.g., logging forests and killing milkweed through drought), are impacting monarch survival.

The monarch butterfly is just one species—a sentinel, if you will—in what many scientists are calling the largest mass-ever extinction in Earth’s history; and one caused by runaway global warming. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, 90% of all living things were wiped out in the Permian mass extinction. Researchers in Canada, Italy, Germany and the US argue that volcanic eruptions pumped massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, causing average temperatures to rise by eight to 11°C in their paper in the journal Palaeoworld. This melted vast amounts of methane (just like what is currently happening in the shelf sediments and permafrostregions of the northern hemisphere), causing temperatures to soar even further to levels “lethal to most life on land and in the oceans.”

Climate change—and all that is associated with it—is altering our planet irreparably, one sure-footed step at a time. And it is doing this regardless of geographic boundary, political affiliation, scientific knowledge or religious belief. Climate change is a global phenomenon that can provide us with the very best opportunity to unite as a global community.

In 2014, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico cooperated as Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and Enrique Pena Nieto signed the North American Climate, Clean Energy, and Environment Partnership Action Plan—something, which I wonder if the current U.S. administration will now honour.

Focusing on the monarch or any other sentinel is a sound rallying approach that can have significant cumulative effects. The entire world is inexorably linked, after all.

You save the monarch; you save the world.

Kingsolver ends her book with Dellarobia caught in a mountain flood that may take her life; yet, she remains suspended—transfixed in the moment of the miracle unfolding before her. The monarchs survived the winter and are taking flight:

“The vivid blur of their reflections glowed on the rumpled surface of the water, not clearly defined as individual butterflies but as masses of pooled, streaky color, like the sheen of floating oil, only brighter, like a lava flow…Her eyes held steady on the fire bursts of wings reflected across the water, a merging of flame and flood. Above the lake of the world, flanked by white mountains, they flew out to a new earth.”

Let us hope that we are part of that new earth.

Things that you can do to help:
  • Plant a butterfly garden. Add plants that take the monarch from tiny egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult. These include plants in the milkweed family and nectar-rich blooming plants. Most nurseries sell pollinator mix seeds.
  • Plant milkweeds in your garden. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The adults get most of their energy from the nectar of plants.
  • Place your garden where it receives lots of sunlight but is also protected from the elements. You can create a shelter using trees, shrubs and perennials as well as logs and stones. Flat stones can serve as hot spots for butterflies to get warm.
  •  Write your MLA / MNA / MPP and the minister responsible for environmental issues. Let them know you are concerned. Letters are important and taken very seriously by government; they understand that for every letter sent there are many who think similarly but aren’t writing.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

When New Embraces Old: Part 2, Incorporating Nature in Design

students studying in Donnelly
UofT is a place of learning—erudite, splendid, yet humble—beautifully epitomizing “new embracing old”. When new embraces old, we get magic. Wizard-magic. Harry Potter kind of magic. The kind of magic that only someone who is open, faithful, and confident can wield. This is ancient magic. The magic that lurks like Reznikoff’s ghost in the ancient halls of University College, or the magic currently wielded at 1 Spadina. A magic borne of wisdom, lore, and story.

Terrence Donnelly Centre
The St. George campus of UofT lies embedded in the city of Toronto, steps away from the upscale shopping district of Yonge and Bloor and not much farther from the bustle of the financial district on King and Bay. It’s a bracing walk to Union Station, where every moving vehicle ends up at some time. UofT sprawls like an amoeba of neutrinos through the parliament buildings of University Avenue, making subtle changes here and there. Recreating the fabric of the cityscape in muonic subtleties.

In Part 1 of my Old / New journey, I wrote about my walk south from the St. George TTC station along St. George to the Galbraith and Bahen buildings, where I teach in science and engineering. I currently also teach in the Bloomberg Health Sciences building on College Street. It lies directly across from a building that has long held my curiosity: the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research (CCBR).
Spiral staircase on 6th floor

Donnelly is where some of the coolest research and discoveries in biomolecular and cellular research are being made. Benjamin Blencowe and his team’s recent uncovering a protein’s sweeping influence on autism last December using introverted mice, for instance. Named after the philanthropist Terrence J. Donnelly, the centre was the vision of UofT Professors Cecil Yip and James Friesen. In the 1990s they foresaw that new genomic technologies would open up progress in biomedical research in a time when there was no human genome sequence or stem cell technologies and DNA sequencing was slow and inexpensive. Yip and Friesen envisioned a collaborative interdisciplinary research facility that, when it opened in 2005, brought together over 500 specialistsbiologists, computer scientists, physicians, pharmacists and engineers—to advance the university's groundbreaking research in molecular biology.

entrance to atrium of Donnelly
Designed by ArchitectsAlliance and Behnisch Architekten, Donnelly is a sustainable, transparent 12-storey building that promotes collaborative research within flexible, loft-style open concept laboratories and social spaces: ideal for interaction and sharing of ideas. "The Terence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research ... is intelligent, unconventional architecture designed through a strong collaboration between local Toronto architects and German gurus of high-technology design," writes Lisa Rochon of the Globe and Mail (2005). "Three faculties—medicine, pharmacy and engineering and applied sciences—agreed to participate, so that biologists might start brainstorming in the same labs along with computer scientists and chemists," Rochon adds.

The centre is located on what was previously Taddle Creek Road. The CCBR building—which from College Street resembles two colourful stacked cubes—is set back by a gradually sloping plaza with granite benches and groves of white paper birch. The building and plaza are flanked by several historic buildings (80-year old Fitzgerald Medical Building to the east; the 1919 Rosebrugh Institute of Biomaterials and 100-year old Lassonde Mining building to the west; and the Medical Sciences Building to the north).
staircase past bamboo garden in atrium

Upon entering the complex, the granite plaza gives way to white terrazzo flooring in an expansive multi-storey atrium. The top lit glass-ceilinged atrium connects the adjacent heritage Rosebrugh building to the CCBR in a counterpoint of techno-minimalism with Romanesque tradition. While clearly expressing its 21st century vision, Donnelly honours the earlier work of Frederick Banting and Charles Best—scientists who discovered insulin in 1921—by sharing its western wall with the brick exterior of the Rosebrugh building, where research into diabetes continues.

Rosebrugh wall in atrium
My eyes feasted on this rich expression of old and new, starting with the articulated buff coloured brickwork—the row-lock brick patterning and tall Roman corbelled arch windows—of the western wall. My gaze swung to the textured green of the giant bamboo garden in front of it; and finally to the sweeping staircase ahead of me. As I walked up the shallow wide steps lined by pillars that reached skyward, I felt drawn to the bamboo forest to my left. Created by landscape architect Diana Gerrard, the garden offers several "picnic" sites of wooden platforms and benches, which I learned had come from the ash, tulip and cherry trees that had occupied the original lane way.

Rochon suggests that "three elements enliven the architecture: landscape, history and natural light. There is an insertion of greenery, not only at the atrium level, but also on three research floors where plantings of black olive trees and a creeping fig create a sense of moderate climates without resorting to palm trees." Standing on the fifth floor of a research corridor that also overlooks five stories down in the atrium, I enjoyed a splendid view of how new embraced old through these elements.
View of picnic nook from 3rd floor

On my way to the elevator on the second level, I passed several seminar and lecture halls. Colour-coded, like much of the building, there is the "Red Room", the "White Room" or the "Black Room", projecting outward into the wide corridor like giant pods with surfaces polished in mosaic tiles from Italy. 

I took the elevator to the twelfth floor to explore several of the research floors, finding several multi-storied enclaves of trees, wooden floors and benches or desks that invited. These staff lounges, along with a system of open corridors and stairwells encourage informal, interdisciplinary contact on which scientific discoveries are built. I wound my way down on a series of stairs that spiraled like a DNA helix and a dizzying zigzag of stairs that hung over the bamboo-forested atrium. Gazing up from a hanging stairway off the fourth floor, I rested my eyes on a researcher sitting at a desk on the fifth floor: she perched over the atrium like a bird on a tree limb. I was reminded of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, where interaction is promoted between scientists and researchers of the various disciplines through ingenious design.

View of Donnelly from the west
"That it is a 12-storey, shifting box of transparency is an act of intelligent decisions and of unconventional thinking around what a curtain wall should look like," writes Rochon of Donnelly. Rochon describes the south-facing facade as a double skin of glass, which permits solar and acoustic control and provides a rich transparency on the building's primary face. From within the research offices, it's possible to open and close the inner skin of windows. The exterior
6-story Atrium of Donnelly Centre
glass wall acts "like a big sweater" lined with metal louvres. Each office has electronic controls to operate the thermostat, the light switch and the louvres." The east, west and north facades are glazed with patterned ceramic fritted glass and coloured laminated glass, providing shade and some privacy. The north façade is a curtain wall, providing light into the building; the east has a pattern of laminated coloured glass representing genetic code; the west façade has dotted fritting applied to its glazed panels and is highly transparent to show the colours of Donnelly’s 11 research departments painted on the hallway walls. Gardens are watered via roof runoff, collected by an integrated stormwater system.

Donnelly “is not so much an object as a system that coerces a variety of disciplines to interact,” writes Jiing-yen of the University of Waterloo.

UofT Faculty Club: Every journey requires repast—a place to relax, eat and drink—and my feet naturally directed me to one of my new favourite haunts: the UofT Faculty Club. Located close to the hub of the campus, on Willcocks Street just east of Spadina, the club is open to members who include faculty, staff, graduate alumni and their guests. I entered the 1896 heritage building, built in a Georgian Revival-style, and passed the elegant first floor lounge to the pub below. The pub welcomed me with excellent food, drink and a relaxing ambience. Bathed in rich tones of wood and comfortable chairs and warmed by a cozy fireplace, it reminded me of a Dorset pub I’d visited years ago; full of colourful characters and a well-stocked bar. I felt both at home and like a traveler. Like I’d walked into history with modern comfort. I ordered the beet salad from my friendly waitress; it provided a refreshing and attractive light meal for a mid-day traveller.

What better place to end my journey of “new embracing old” than in a place where “old embraces new.”